The Tragic Path of James Baldwin

James Baldwin, novelist, essayist, poet, was born August 2, 1924 and died November 30, 1987. From child evangelist in a store-front church in Harlem, to the front of TIME magazine as a dominant prophetic voice of the sixties, to a disillusioned anti-American living and dying in France, Baldwin’s life was another witness to the power of Christian roots and the tragedy that comes when the root is severed.

James Baldwin on the cover of TIMEIn 1963, when I was a junior in high school, Baldwin published his most powerful book, The Fire Next Time. Unlike his previous Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name, his hope for racial healing in America had almost disappeared when The Fire was published.

Its title is taken from a slave-song warning us that God promised Noah: No flood, not no fire.

If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

He saw the fires in the American cities in the sixties as the fulfillment of this prophecy.

Rooted still in the prophetic structures of the Old Testament, in 1972 he wrote an essay titled “No Name in the Street,” based on Job 18:17,

His remembrance shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street.

His bitterness and pessimism was overflowing:

There will be bloody actions all over the world for years to come; but the Western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set. Period.

How many in our day—white and black and Asian and Hispanic—are still trying to sound a prophetic note with the faint echoes of biblical language, when the Story and the Substance have long ago been abandoned?

May God grant the rising generation to see that the glory of biblical justice will disillusion every prophet who abandons the joy of biblical Gospel.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.